Tom Strini
This Week at the MSO

Wet music

By - Oct 7th, 2011 01:04 pm
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Tan Dun, composer of “Water Concerto.”

Water is fluid. Music is fluid. So a lot of music has something to do with water.

This weekend, for example, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra will take up Tan Dun’s Water Concerto. This music especially fits Milwaukee right now, as we’re becoming aware of the importance of H2O and water technology as economic drivers and world resources.

All this got me thinking about the ways musicians have represented water and actually used it to make music. Handel’s Water Music came to mind first. But he composed that not to sound watery, but for musicians to play on a barge floating near George I’s royal barge. Water Music is to water as marching bands are to football fields. Meant to be played on them, but not really about them. So it’s not quite the same.

I’m thinking more along the lines of Debussy’s La mer, in which the composer captures the shimmer of waves in the shimmer of strings as surely as Monet captured the shimmer of waves in strokes of paint. Or of or La cathédrale engloutie (The engulfged cathedral), in which velvety chords suggest the haunting presence of a grand building in the half-light filtering down through the briny deep.

Perhaps no concert in history has done more with water than Present Music did on August 27. A polytonal rendition of Row Your Boat, played by musicians on boats in the Milwaukee River, set the tone. Kamran Ince, in his Still, Flow, Surge, sonically portrayed the various states of water in the program’s centerpiece premiere. The soloist sloshed water about a plastic tub.

Dun — best know for his film score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — demands much more of his soloist, Yuri Yamashita in this case, in his 1998 Water Concerto. The composer calls for virtuoso playing of an array of wet instruments: Two hemispherical, lighted water basins; a small bottle, for bubbling sounds; waterphone; a pair of water cup drums; medium water gong; four water drums; a “slinky phone” (your guess is as good as mine); a long water tube with foam paddle; a water shaker; four agogo bells; a sieve; and prepared vibraphone and waterphone. The score specifies a bass bow for vibrating some of these instruments and — I love this — a towel for drying off.

Fun fact to know and tell: Richard Waters invented the waterphone.

Also on this program, to be conducted by music director Edo de Waart: Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 and Brahms’ Symphony No. 2. This is just a hunch, but I suspect that on this occasion de Waart will bring out the juicy Romanticism in both works. A dry reading just wouldn’t seem right.

Concert times are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets start at $22. For more information or to order tickets, visit the MSO’s website.

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